The Caregiver with Four Legs: a therapy dog story

caregiver dog therapy dog

Sometimes a therapy dog can offer a lot!

Every caregiver will tell you–it’s hard to give care all alone.

Dad’s hands gripped the walker as he took a couple of steps from the table. He looked up, his eyes bright and laughing, “What’s next? Where do I go?”

Mom loaded dishes into the dishwasher, so I answered, “Where do you want to go?”

Dad smacked his walker and replied with a grin, “Where ever she puts me!” The walker waved a little toward mom, then thumped back down again.

Mom looked up and motioned vaguely towards the chair where he spends a large part of his time. “Do you want to go sit in your chair?” Dad just kept smiling. Mom spoke again, motioning with a big arm movement this time, “Go sit in your chair.”

The grin stayed put but so did dad as he replied, “That’s not going to work.”

“Why not?”

“Because I have to go to the bathroom!” Dad replied, still with a gleam in his eyes. But this time I noticed the way his eyes kept darting to mom, wanting help and not feeling sure of himself.

At this point, mom’s hands had soap suds on them and she was obviously busy. I felt unsure of whether I should interrupt the routine they have that works for them. I wanted to know why mom was so complacent. I wanted to take over the dishes so she could help dad. I wanted to help dad, but he’s dad—you know, that big strong incredibly smart man who provided for me and taught me and raised me—maybe he wouldn’t want my help. I wanted to blurt, “Well, go to the bathroom then…why are you asking permission?”

But mom’s been around dad and Alzheimer’s for several years.

She knew what dad was actually asking. Hands still buried in the dishwater she called out, “Tilly!” Their little Shih Tzu came bounding off the chair where she was waiting for dad to come sit, as he usually does, after dinner. Tilly bounced up and stood looking adoringly at dad, who looked lovingly back at her. I didn’t know what was going on. Mom spoke again, “Tilly, the bathroom. Take him to the bathroom!”

Tilly gave one excited little bounce and then trotted off toward the master bedroom/bathroom area of the house and without a pause dad pushed off with his walker and followed Tilly’s waving tail around the corner and out of sight.

Sometimes a therapy dog knows more than we do!

I said not a word, feeling stupid and just standing there with a bowl in each hand, not helping correctly with the clean-up nor with the Alzheimer’s. Mom laughed beside me, “She’ll lay down beside the bathroom door and wait for him. When he’s done, she’ll bring him back here. She does this all the time. He forgets where to go for things, but Tilly doesn’t.”

Tilly. A rescue dog from the Blue Mountain Humane Society. You’d think she was a trained therapy dog.

My mom and I had talked about animals and how they can help older people.

Mom wasn’t sure about getting a dog. It might be a decent companion, but they required shots and food, cleaning and haircuts and they could shed and dig holes, etc. A few days later mom called me. She let me know she’d gone to the pound when the home health worker had come and given her a break. She didn’t know what she was looking for and just told the desk workers at the pound that she’d like a little dog that didn’t shed and that would be calm enough for her husband.

The workers grinned and both said, “Tilly!”

They put mom in a little room and brought an ugly flea-bitten little thing in. Tilly was a definite rescue. She was clean, but her hair had been so matted that they had to shave her and mom laughingly told me on the phone that she looked terrible. Mom sat in her chair, unsure of what to do. But Tilly knew. She walked over and just put her little paws on mom’s knee. That was all it took. Now mom was calling and she wasn’t sure if she should get the dog or not. I told her to go for it. She hung up the phone, still unsure.

The next day I called to see what Mom had decided and she laughingly told me that dad was in the car with the dog and she was shopping for a leash and some food, etc. The bonding was instant between this little misfit and an extremely intelligent man who now has trouble remembering things.

The value of a pet – companionship and therapy.

Tilly isn’t ugly any more, she’s really cute and the value of this little dog is immeasurable. Not only does she lead dad to the bathroom, or other places, but she also reads his moods. When dad just wants to sit and relax, Tilly curls on his lap. If dad has lots of energy, Tilly will bring her toy for him to throw for her. Sometimes dad forgets things and sometimes his words don’t come out like he wants, but that never bothers Tilly. She listens to him intently, with her head cocked to one side and her tail flopping back and forth as she reads his tone.

Sometimes mom and dad will go for a ride and Tilly is more than happy to go along. If mom runs into a store, Tilly will sit on dad’s lap and the two of them will watch people and talk about life until mom gets back. The little black ball of fur will wait beside his bed if he’s sleeping in, in the morning, and she’s not interested in going to bed unless dad is going to bed as well. Then she’ll go happily into her kennel when mom gives the command.

They are buds, my dad and the little Shih Tzu.

What an incredible blessing this little mutt from the pound has been for my dad and my mom. Now mom has a partner in caregiving—Tilly. Who could have imagined that a rescue dog would turn out to be the perfect therapy dog and caregiver companion?

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